Governor Wike’s decision to accord former Governor Celestine Omehia his rights and privileges as a former governor of Rivers State has expectedly raised some eyebrows. EMMA ALOZIE takes a look at the propriety or otherwise of the move and why it should be commended or even condemned
Since Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State restored the privileges of former Governor Celestine Omehia of Rivers State, it has generated a lot of controversies.
While some believe that it was long overdue, others strongly condemn the move, describing it as illegal.
Celestine Omehia came into the national political limelight when he was used to substitute Rotimi Amaechi as the governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP in the 2007 general elections.
Amaechi had won the PDP governorship primaries in Rivers State and was about standing for election when the then President Olusegun Obasanjo came up with the K-leg excuse to stop him from contesting that election.
In his place, Celestine Omehia contested the election and went ahead to win the election. But Amaechi did not give up. He went to court to challenge that decision and barely five months later, the Supreme Court upturned that decision and ordered that Amaechi should be sworn in.
While delivering that judgment, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu said, “in the eyes of the law, he (Amaechi) remains the candidate and this court must treat him as such. The appellant and not the respondent must be seen as having won the election. The argument that the appellant must be held to his claim overlooks the fact that this court has the wide jurisdiction to give circumstantial orders and grant reliefs, which the circumstances and situations dictate.
“This court shall rise up to do substantial justice without regard to technicalities. We would not make an order which does not address the grievances of the party before this court. The only way to accord recognition to his right not to be trampled upon is to declare him and not the 2nd respondent to have won the April 14 gubernatorial election.”
The late Gani Fawehinmi faulted the judgment describing it as “a terrible judicial imposition, and a denial of the democratic rights of the state’s electorate to elect their leaders.”
According to Chief Fawehinmi, “the assumption of office by Rotimi Amaechi as a judicial imposition on the electorate of Rivers State, who when they were voting on the 14th April, 2007, did not have in view or consideration of Rotimi Amaechi who was not a candidate in the eyes, in the minds and in the hearts of the electorate of Rivers State. The essence of democratic elections is that the electorate should decide who should be their leaders.
“In their eyes, minds, hearts and brains, the electorate of Rivers State did not cast any vote for Rotimi Amaechi because he was not a candidate in the election,” Fawehinmi said, stressing that under the 1999 Constitution, it is not the party that is the candidate in any election for elective office, hence the Peoples Democratic Party was not a candidate.”
Going by this judgment, the Amaechi administration considered Omehia’s five months tenure as illegal and therefore unknown to law. It is from this viewpoint that some have condemned the recent restoration of all the rights and privileges of Omehia as a former governor by Governor Wike.
The Rivers State chapter of the All Progressives Congress has kicked against Governor Wike’s move describing it as an embarrassment. “The APC rejects the attempt by a sitting governor to undermine the integrity and sanctity of the judiciary which is what Governor Nyesom Wike did yesterday against the verdict of the Supreme Court of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It suggests that the governor abandoned the Oath of Office and Oath of Allegiance he swore to on the 29th day of May, 2015.
“As a party, the APC recalls that the Supreme Court of Nigeria in a 2007 verdict, that is now popular in Nigeria, ruled that Sir Celestine Omehia was never a ‘governor in the eyes of the law’ and consequently nullified his governorship as having not happened. That landmark judgment also ordered that Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi be sworn in immediately as the rightful Governor of Rivers State. The Supreme Court explicitly declared that Omehia held the office in error and illegally,” APC said.
Even Olisa Agbakoba, SAN and former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA described Governor Wike’s gesture as “useless unnecessary and capable of overheating the system.”
But the Rivers state government has come down hard on the critics of the move saying the gesture from the governor to restore the rights and privileges of Omehia was in the spirit of reconciliation, dismissing the opponents of this move as barely informed. Emma Okah, Rivers state Commissioner for Housing said Agbakoba misdirected himself on facts and therefore was wrong. According to the commissioners, “This is purely a political concession, far away from the courts. There must be an end to acrimony and bitterness or politics of hate. As a people, we should encourage harmony, peace and consensus building, so that we can put the agony of yesterday behind us and together, move the state to greater heights,” he said, noting that in all jurisdictions, litigants can still seek peace outside the court room or even after judgment and such agreements calm frayed nerves and heal wounds better and faster.”
Emma Okah reeled out many instances where Governor Wike derived precedence in doing what he did. “Nigeria did the same for Chief Ernest Shonekan who headed the Interim Government which the court declared illegal. In Ekiti State, Governor Ayo Fayose, accorded similar recognition to Chief Segun Oni, even though the court said he was not a governor in law. People are happy with these situations and that of Rivers State cannot be different,” he stated.
The arguments from the two contending camps can be said to be parallel. While those in support argue that for the five months Omehia served as governor, the actions he took while in office cannot be vitiated by the Supreme Court ruling that removed him from office. The argument here is that as long as those actions like signing of some bills into law, awarding contracts, etc cannot be voided, then Omehia should also benefit from those actions within those five months.
Those following this line of argument have a surfeit of precedence to rely on. For instance, former Governor Chris Ngige of Anambra State who was removed in almost same circumstances by the Supreme Court has all his privileges and rights intact. Also, Professor Oserheimen Osunbor who was equally removed by the Supreme Court many months after as the governor of Edo State still enjoys his rights and privileges. The question here now is, why not Omehia?
On the other hand, those opposing the gesture argue that restoring Omehia’s rights and privileges would simply amount to putting something on nothing as according to them, the Supreme Court’s ruling means that period never really existed.
No matter how long the argument lasts, one thing is sure; Governor Wike’s gesture would go a long way in healing some wounds inflicted by that unexpected ruling and a judgment described by many legal luminaries as absurd.